Japanese folk dance has a strong and vibrant tradition that has continued for over a thousand years for some forms. It provides a fascinating glimpse into the past of this island nation.
Roots of Japanese Folk Dance
Like most folk dances, the forms practiced by Japanese folk dancers evolved out of the community activities for generation after generation. For example, the So-Ran Bushi, a traditional song that accompanies the bon dance, was developed by the fishermen in Hokkaido centuries ago. Other examples of traditional folk dances are:
- Iyomanzai - A New Year's celebratory dance, this asks the gods for peace during the coming year. Danced using fans, the performers create shapes such as boats, trees, and birds to symbolize good fortune.
- Ayakomai - is a dance with a history going back half a millennium; it is a prayer of thanks to the gods.
- Sakura - Literally meaning "cherry blossom", this is a dance of Spring performed by a woman, happily celebrating the sunny blue skies and bright cherry blossoms in bloom.
Awa Dance Festival: Big Dance Time!
While all of these dances are performed all over Japan, they come together every year in the Awa Dance Festival, which is held every August from the 12th to the 15th. It is the largest festival of its kind in Japan, with over a million tourists coming each year to see the performances going on in Shikoku, Japan (Tokushima Prefecture).
The Famous Bon Dance
Bon Odori, also known as the Obon Dance, is probably the most popular and most recognized of the Japanese folk dance forms. Obon refers to the Buddhist tradition of honoring the ancestors, a very important part of every Japanese person's heritage. The belief is that during the Obon festival, the ghosts of your ancestors return to visit their kin.
This is not done in a scary or even mournful way, such as Halloween or even Dia des los Muertos (the Mexican Day of the Dead, which is more memorial). Rather, it is both a cause for celebration and a display of respect. During the day, a very refined and sophisticated dance called nagashi is performed, which becomes the much more active and frenetic zomeki in the evening. Like any good community dance, everyone is encouraged to participate - the dances are easy enough that spectators can join easily enough, and are encouraged to do so.
During the Bon Odori a special building called a yagura is made of wood for the dancers to move around. The specific moves and patterns (and even music) can vary from region to region, but aside from the basic steps described below, the dance more or less moves in a circular fashion. Occasionally, additional movements that describe a region's history are added into the choreography, which is an appropriate way for a dance to honor the ancestors.
Basic Steps for Bon Dance
The steps to Bon odori are something that are a part of traditional Japanese education, handed down from generation to generation.
- Men - Starting with the right side, put the arm and foot forward, just touching the ground with your toes. Cross right foot over left, then repeat the step using the left arm and foot instead. The men's hands form small triangular patterns in the air as they crouch down, arms held above their shoulders.
- Women - Very similar in basic steps to the men's, the key difference lies in the fact that traditional kimonos are much more restrictive. The kicks and moves are more precise and short, necessitated both by their clothing and also the geta--sandals they wear to perform in.
Folk Dance in Japan Moves On
Japanese folk dancing is far from a dying art - in fact, aside from being popular in Japan, it is now taught and practiced all over the world. Meanwhile, in Japan, it keeps changing as well - recently a group of high school students, led by their teacher, added a contemporary rock beat to the 'So-ran' dance, creating "Rock'n Soran Bushi", which became a popular version of the dance. With younger generations enthusiastically dancing alongside older generations, the dances show no signs of weakening.